Race Report: 1er Trail des Cimes du Buech

The race start at La Faurie

The race start at La Faurie

The first edition of the Trail des Cimes du Buech took place on Sunday, and so I went along since at 17km and 950m +/- it was short and steep enough for me to feel like I could properly ‘race’ it, rather than just try to complete the distance. Since it took place in La Faurie, a village just 20 minutes drive from me, it made sense too.

The Route

The route comprised of a loop, climbing the mountains above La Faurie, running along the ridge with an ampitheatre to the east, and opening up to the rolling hills of Haute Provence to the southwest. The entire route was on eithe forest single track or 4×4 roads, with some steep climbs and technical descending. Around 60 runners made it to the start line, and I made a conscious effort to get to the front early since the first 800m or so were fairly flat, but with a bridge and some single track it would quickly become a bottleneck, so by the time we reached the first climb I was in around 12th place. 10 minutes into the climb I’d made up about 4-5 places and settled in at 5th place. It stayed like this until the final summit, until the runner behind me showed how the skill of technical descending can really make a difference. He overtook me and I lost 2 minutes on him in the final 6km to the finish, coming in in 6th place with a time of 1hr 46.

Not looking my best as I summited the top of the course in 5th place

Not looking my best as I summited the top of the course in 5th place

Strava Race Data

Descending through the forest down to the finish line

Descending through the forest down to the finish line

Race Report: La Bombarde

On Sunday I ran my first ever competitive 10km road race – since getting into running about 6 years ago I’ve always been attracted to the longer distance events on trails, and can comfortably knock out a 45 minute 10km so I was keen to see how this would translate to an actual race. Since my main aim for this year is the Amsterdam Marathon in October, I’m keen to see how I can sharpen up my speed as well so I thought it would be a good little test.

The event ‘La Bombarde’ is run every April by a local running club, Club Athlétique Veynois which is a 25 minute drive down the valley in Haute Alpes. I got there an registered on the day – only €10 which included a good quality (if a little on the turquoise side) tech t-shirt.

The race headquarters where at the Plan d’eau in Veynes, a nice summer spot around a lake, with riding stables etc. Its in the main valley of the Grande Buech, so despite being in the Alps, there is quite a lot of ‘flat’ land and the race was to take place mostly on the back roads around the back of Veynes.

Photos

The starting pistol went off without much warning or ceremony, and I found myself bunched at the back a bit. The first few hundred metres were on narrow twisting roads which made it difficult to get closer to the front but it soon spaced out. The race was on open roads but on a Sunday morning there’s not much going on in Veynes, and the marshalls did a fantastic job of keeping everything organised on the well marked course. There were markers at every kilometre, and I set my watch to just show me my average pace, with the idea of keeping it consistently below 4:00min/km so that I could aim for as close to 40 minutes as possible.

Luckily I made it in 39:14, so very pleased with the result.


Official Results 

Race Report: 1er Trail Blanc de Dévoluy

It’s the depth of winter here in the French Alps and the snow is deep and for most people the race calendar is fairly empty as most people turn to skiing and snowboarding to pass their leisure time. The nearest big ski resort to me however, Super Dévoluy, was hosting a 10km trail race on the local cross country ski trails and so I thought I would take a look to keep some motivation to my training which has fallen by the wayside of late.

Things didn’t get off to a good start as we had several feet of heavy snow overnight, and it continued in the morning meaning the first job was to dig out the car and hope the main roads had been cleared. Luckily the ploughs had been out, and I have winter tyres so even though the usual 45 minute drive took me over an hour, I pretty much got there in one piece.

It was pretty difficult to find the start though, as it was set in a new sports hall that wasn’t signposted yet, so as so often seems to happen to me, I ended up having to run to the start line. Not the best prep but its only 10k – what can go wrong?

 Strava Race Data

Race Photos

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Shivering at the start line

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The first real climb after leaving the XC ski trails

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More climbing in deep snow

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A few stragglers coming in at the finish

Race Report: Ultra Trail du Vercors

On Saturday 7th September I ran the 86km Ultra Trail du Vercors – with 4000m of elevation, and some stunning scenery it was my longest run to date. I’m pleased to say I completed the course (280 out of 610 starters abandoned the race) in just over 16 hours.

This was the second time I’d attempted the event, the first time was in 2011 during the inaugural running of this event. Being my first ultra marathon it proved to be a real eye opener – I DNF’d after 60km – the heat, the mountains and inexperience on fueling all contributed to that failure, so I vowed to return to what was a well run event with a few thousand more KMs in my legs and whole load of extra experience.

The city of Grenoble, sitting below the Vercors mountains

The city of Grenoble, sitting below the Vercors mountains

The Course

The course is a loop around the Vercors mountains. It takes in four of the major villages, Villard-de-Lans, Lans-en-Vercors, Correncon and Meaudre. Each one of these villages constitutes a major check point roughly every 20km apart. Each year the race starts in a different village, and alternates between a clockwise and a counter-clockwise loop. This ensures that even if you’ve run it before, the course can throw up something new each time.

With over 4000m of vertical gain, this definitely counts as ‘hilly’. There’s also a relay option for teams of 2 or 4, with each person running a quarter or a half of the race respectively.

The Race

This year the race started in Villard-de-Lans, so we drove up on Friday night with our dog Eric, checked into the B&B and went to the race briefing to pick up my goodie bag (buff, t-shirt etc) and then back for an early night. The race starts at 5am so the first hour is pretty much run in the dark – and a significant proportion of people are expected to finish in the dark too so naturally a head torch is obligatory. Arriving at the race briefing I had a flashback to the head torch sitting back at home on the kitchen table – forgotten, and 2 hours drive away. I desperately ran around the village looking for a shop that hadn’t yet closed and managed to find one that sold a head torch. Unfortunately it was the most feeble beam you could ever imagine and I’d have had better luck with my iPhone, but at least I could pass kit check.

For a 5am start there was quite a decent sized crowd to cheer us off, and even up into the first climb people were lining the paths – it felt good to be off after months of training, then the stress of tapering down and trying to avoid injury.

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At the start line in Villard-de-Lans at 5am

The first climb in the early morning darkness

The first climb in the early morning darkness

Early start in the dark, the first climb lit only with headlamps.

Early start in the dark, the first climb lit only with headlamps.

After an hour of climbing 700m in the dark, with a sea of clouds in the valley below us, we reached the ridge of the Vercors and crossed over onto the other side, to be greated with an amazing sunrise. Looking to the south I could see the familiar peaks of the La Jarjatte valley where I live, cast into an unreal glow of dawn light. There wasn’t time to admire the view though, because the trail flattened out and headed south along a great trail of single track.

Running along the trail at dawn

Running along the trail at dawn

Another 90 minutes of running and we headed back up over the ridge and started the descent into the first major checkpoint at Correncon. From then on, the gradient got a little easier, running in more open country and through fields before reaching Meaudre, nicknamed merde by myself after being the location of my DNF two years ago (but it really is a beautiful village and worth a visit).

Starting a new section, heading out of the aid station in Correncon back in the valley below.

Starting a new section, heading out of the aid station in Correncon back in the valley below.

This time I was in a much better state, and meeting up with Amy and our dog Eric, I was still in good spirits having just run marathon distance, but still feeling pretty good.

At the halfway point in Meudre - Eric had come along for some moral support and was disappointed not to be running with me.

At the halfway point in Meudre – Eric had come along for some moral support and was disappointed not to be running with me.

By now my Garmin was dead, and after having used Amy’s up to I had to run the 3rd section with no pace or time data. I found this oddly disconcerting. This section was where it really started to bite – moving as it did through the hottest part of the day and with some seriously steep sections – including running along the side of the ski jump in Autrans, site of the 1968 Winter Olympics hosted by nearby Grenoble. I was starting to despise my food, and also trying to balance drinking enough to keep cool, but not over-hydrate.

 

After meeting up with Amy again in St-Nizier, and being re-equipped with a recharged Garmin the race climbed back up to the eastern ridge of the Vercors to an amazing viewpoint looking out over Grenoble. When I first ran this race, this was our view at dawn and it looked amazing, being able to see all the way up the valley to Mont Blanc, nearly 100 miles away. Unfortunately this time the city and the surrounding mountains were shrouded in mid-afternoon haze, and I was keen to get moving, so continued along the trail towards the third stage village, Lans-en-Vercors.

By the time I got to Lans, it was early evening and getting cool. Hot soup was served at the checkpoint and I slurped some down – I was sick of everything I was carrying myself by that point. Some drops of rain were starting to fall and the clouds were looking increasingly threatening as a storm approached. It probably wasn’t the best time to be climbing up to another high ridgeline if lightning was imminent so it was an added incentive to keep the pace up.

Well, it got dark and the heavens opened and I eventually made it into Villard-de-Lans in the middle of a torrential downpour – cold, wet and exhausted but extremely happy to have completed an event that claimed a 30% abandon rate with a time of 16h03’19”. You can see the full results here.

Final Thoughts

Although the UTV is a low key event by the standards of some of the larger French ultra marathons, in just the two years since my first attempt they have been making great strides to improve the already excellent organisation – but at the same time they haven’t lost any of the atmosphere that attracted me back. Running with the middle of the pack, I never found myself short of somebody to talk to, and the scenery is nothing shorts of stunning. The race marshals and volunteers at the aid stations did and excellent job, and there’s plenty of hikers out on the trail to give support.

I definitely plan to be back.

Race Report – Les Drayes du Vercors

On Saturday I ran my first ultra marathon since 2011. Les Drayes du Vercors is ‘only’ 62km, but represented the first big test of the year, and a baking hot mid-June day, and 3,800m of vertical meant it was a tough old day on the trail.

The day before we drove from my home to the fabulous Auberge Collet which would be our base for the weekend. The drive took us through the heart of the southern Vercors, the dramatic Col de Grimone, Gorges des Gats, through the historic town of Die, and then up through the Col du Rousset, giving this amazing view back from the top.

Looking back at the southern Vercors mountains from the Col de Rousset

Looking back at the southern Vercors mountains from the Col de Rousset

The Route

The race comprised several smaller events and relay events, but since I was running the full solo 62km, I would start from La Chapelle-en-Vercors, running in a loop to the southeast taking in two large climbs, before arriving back in La Chapelle after 26km. The race then snaked out to the north along a sustained climb, before plunging down the spectacular cliff faces of Les Grands Goulets. After climbing back up, it was another descent into the valley heading south, before one final climb back into La Chapelle to complete the figure-of-8 course.

The video below, taken by another competitor gives a summary of the full course in a couple of minutes.


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I completed the event in 10:08:27, coming 42nd out of 53 finishers. I’m not sure how many abandons there were but I passed a couple of people who had given up, and we saw one person being stretchered off with what looked like a broken leg.

 Organisation

The event cost only 25EUR to enter, and as such was one of the cheaper long distance races I’ve entered. There was no t-shirt or medal, but a portable rubber cup and survival blanket (both mandatory items on the list) were included. I was slightly disappointed with the lack of any route maps, as the map available on the website was not very good quality. It was also difficult to know how far apart the aid stations were – a list of them with cumulative distance would have been handy.

Start/finish area - end of first loop

However, despite the lack of map, the marking of the course was fantastic, with ribbons, signs and paint marks ever 25m or so. During the course of 62km, I only took one wrong turning towards the end (and it was my fault for not paying attention) resulting in a 200m detour (unfortunately back uphill).

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The aid stations were well equipped and the volunteers were full of encouragement. At the end of the race the local Pompiers offered massages and we were all checked out to make sure we were OK.

Terrain

The route the course took was almost always off-road, with probably no more than 500m of tarmac on the whole of the 62km course. In places this was extremely tough going with some very steep sections. In France we have had quite a wet Spring and there were still some quite boggy sections in the forest too.

Hilly

Other runners

Race Report: 2013 Paris Marathon

Its been a while since I’ve run a marathon on tarmac. 3 years in fact. London 2010 was my first and only road marathon which I managed in a respectably 3:35. I was a bit of a wreck at the end, but the crowd were amazing and the time was decent enough to encourage me that I had room for improvement.

But then I fell in love with trail running. I turned my back on road races and headed for the hills. The Greensand Marathon, Pilgrim Challenge, Ultra Trail du Vercors, Midsummer Munro, The Beast – all of these  were much more to my liking – hundreds, not thousands of runners, stunning locations, and lots of hills. The closest I came was a marathon in Richmond Park.

However as time went on, and my running in the hills improved, I was curious to see how this might affect my road running. Common running folklore says that ultra running, trail running, mountain running – all the offroad stuff – is not conducive to fast marathon times on the flats. So I got the itch to test myself again, and picked Paris.

Tapering

Pre-marathon preparation is always difficult. As running lore and common sense dictates, there’s not much you can do in your final week to improve your race performance, but there’s a hell of a lot you can do to mess it up. With that in mind, during the week of the race I went out on the Tuesday evening to run a fast pace with full marathon kit, complete with carrying gels and running in the gear I would race in. I probably went  a little too hard but luckily had enough time to recover the sore quads in time for the race.

Marathon Expo

A quick run round the village on Saturday morning with the dog, and then it was on the TGV up to Paris. Our hotel was in the SW of the city which was quite convenient for the Marathon Expo at Porte de Versailles, where I went to pick up my race number and goody bag. Once I’d emptied all the flyers and other crap from my good bag, the only items of any discernible usefulness were a bar towel, and a bag of pistachios. Note to organisers: For 65 euros and upwards – could do better.
Running Expo

Anyway, I made my way through the expo as quickly as possible – it was full of people trying to sell running gear or get you to sign up to other marathons. There was a rice party for last minute carb-loaders but I’d brought my own pasta (taking no chances with restaurants and food poisoning) so I headed back to the hotel to stuff my face.

Race Day

I managed to get a reasonable sleep despite the rumble of the RER trains and trams right past the hotel, and was up at 6 to wolf down some porridge and get the Metro to the start line. When I surfaced at Place de Charles de Gaulle, the sun was up and the place was swarming around the Arc de Triomphe. It was damn cold though, so left it until the last minute to drop off my bag so that I could keep my tracksuit on for as long as possible.
The marathon route is basically a squashed loop, heading out from the Champs Elysee, down to the Louvre and heading east to the Bois de Vincennes park. It loops round before heading back west along the Seine, to the Bois de Bolougne, and then finishing on the Avenue Foch leading back to the Arc de Triomphe. This meant that logistically, our bag drop was at the finish (unlike say, London, where they transport your bags to the end).
Worst version of “Where’s Wally?” ever…
I was in with a predicted time of 3:15 so had to get to one of the start pens at the front. The Champs Elysee is a pretty wide avenue, and all of the road was penned for runners, with the side pavements used to get to the start gate. However it soon became a huge crush, as 50,000 runners tried to find their place. I managed to get into my start pen with seconds to spare, so no real time for a warm up and feeling pretty stressed. I really shouldn’t have left it so long until I dropped my bags.
The pace kicked off pretty quickly as usual, but the first 10km were pretty crowded. The weather was perfect, clear and cold with little wind and we soon warmed up. I chatted to ‘Richard from Portsmouth’ who was aiming for a 3 hour time so we made conversation as we passed our way alongside the Louvre, the Rue de Rivoli and out east.

Park Life

The course really was quite flat and fast, and being so straight we soon made it out to the Bois de Vincennes, a huge park just outside the Peripherique on the eastern side of Paris. The course looped through there from about KMs 12 to 19, and being so far out, the crowd support dropped a bit with a few gaps, but there were plenty of people around the KM markers, and lots of casual support from people out walking their dogs on a  Sunday morning.

Tunnel Vision

After the Bois de Vincennes, the route snaked back towards the centre of Paris, along the river Seine. We passed the halfway point and I was still feeling strong, averaging around 4.17min/km which I knew was a pace of just over 3 hours for the whole race – however I was aware that keeping that up for another half marathon was not going to be easy. My time at the halfway point was 1hr 29m 55sec – my first ever sub-90 minute half marathon – I was pleased, but a bit worried I was going too fast.
Coming back into town and the crowd support really increased. A beautiful, sunny day on the banks of the Seine, with the Eiffel tower in the background made it an amazing experience. But then came the tunnels. There were about 3 or 4 tunnels of varying length, each of which dipped very sharply, plunging us into a humid and bizarre dark world, before forcing an uphill run out back into daylight.

I really started to flag at the end, after the 35km mark I was getting the usual cramps pinging into my calf muscles whenever I ran too fast so my pace dropped.

Conclusion

40,108 runners left the Champs Elysee at the start, and 38,690 crossed the finishing line. I came 1,926th in total, with an official time of 03h08’12”. My best marathon to date, and tantalisingly close enough to the magic 3 hour mark that I’m tempted to have another go.
If you’re thinking of a marathon, you could do a lot worse than Paris. The organisation was pretty spot on considering the huge field of runners. The route was magnificent, crowd support was good and the fact that the start and end is pretty much in the same place is a big plus. Its much easier to get a place, not being as heavily subscribed as London, and also gives you a great excuse to visit Paris.
Finished

Etape 2012 – Albertville to La Toussuire

I signed up for L’Etape du Tour last year before we moved to the French Alps, full of enthusiasm that having the mountains on my doorstep would mean that I would get out on my bike often and be properly fit and aclimatised by the time 8th July 2012 rolled around.

Well, it didn’t quite pan out that way. With a combination of work commitments, getting a dog, and rennovating a house, and niggly injuries my cycle training prior to the Etape amounted to around 50km on the local roads, 30km of which were done in one ride last week! However, I’d entered with my ex-colleague Mike, who was making the trip out from England, and emboldened by a plucky British spirit and a stubborn reluctance to consider the facts I decided to do it anyway.

The profile of the route taking in some classic Alpine climbs

Well Acte 1 is a bit of a monster as you can see from the profile. One of the toughest stages of this year’s tour, it includes 2 Hors-category, a 2nd and first category climbs. Quite simply, after the first 16km rolling out Albertville there is hardly any flat section left on the course.

Anyhow, I drove up on Saturday afternoon, taking the car to the top of La Toussuire where the stage would finish. I made the mistake of driving the last 5km of the actual course, rather than taking the short cut to the ski resort and it seemed pretty viscious. After dropping the car and taking the shuttle bus to the Etape village which was set up in the Olympic park from when Albertville hosted the 1986 winter olympics. I met up with Mike and we picked up our race numbers and goody bags.

The temperature down in Albertville was in the low 30s, and we sat sweltering in a huge hanger type building eating our generous portions of pre-race pasta. After that it was a half hour drive to our Formule 1 motel – not the best accommodation in the world, and hot night with no a/c meant I wasn’t exactly rested when the alarm went off at 5.20 the next morning.

The heat of the previous day had disappeared and was replaced with the pouring rain. A quick breakfast of baguette, jam and bananas sat under the hotel awning with other riders and then a ride to the start of the race.

Rain clouds over Albertville

There were 9,000 entrants in this year’s event but having the Olympic Park in Albertville to start from meant that it all went pretty smoothly. The rain eased off to a steady drizzle with a promise of better weather to come in the afternoon.

Either way, it was rain jackets on as we rolled out of Albertville. Despite the crap weather and early hour there were quite a few people on the streets of the town centre cheering us on, and the flat roads and cool conditions meant we got a good warm up.

Pretty soon though we arrived at the foot of the climb to the Col de la Madelaine, and things started getting difficult. I’ve done a few of the local roads round our way but this was the first time I’ve ever climed a sustained 6-10% gradient for 20-odd kilometres, and it was a tough couple of hours in the saddle. I stopped at the feed station half way up which was probably a mistake, because getting going again was tough. However I seemed to manage to be able to sustain around 10kph and eventually made it to the top of the Col de la Madelaine.

The Col  de la Madelaine – definitely time for a break.

 By now it was around 11am and the sun had come out and the roads had dried up, so the upcoming 25km was less unnerving than I was originally expecting. However at over 2,000m at the start, it was quite chilly and hitting 60-70kph on the downhills (plenty fast enough for me) for 25 minutes was quite an effort (again the first time I’d ever done that kind of descent). Keeping on the breaks into the corners was very tough on the hands and arms, and my fingers and thumbs went numb on the way down with a combination of windchill and effort.

Getting down to the valley floor meant it was time to warm up and rest up – we used the separate feed station provided by the guys at La Fuga, so it was great to be able to top up with electrolytes, leave my rain jacket (it was forecast to be hot, even on the descents, for the rest of the day) and slather on some more factor 50 before heading out for the next climb, the Col du Glandon, and Croix de Fer.

The climb up to the Glandon – tough in its own right but a killer after the Madelaine

The Glandon was another monster, but after being softened up by the Madelaine climb, it was even harder. The day was getting very hot, and the hardest part of the climb, towards the top was above the tree line and so provided no shade. The final 3km also blew in some fierce headwinds which added to the misery. Throughout the whole ride the camaradarie had been excellent, with a lot of chatting and banter in the peleton, but on the upper slopes of the Glandon it was eerily quite as people dug deep to make it to the top.

The Col du Gladon in the top left of the picture. The last few kilometres kick up more steeply, and a fierce headwind really didn’t help.

I finally made it to the top – I teamed up with a French rider who was struggling too and we encouraged each other to the top. The Col de la Croix de Fer was next, but this was just another 2.5km and is not quite so steep, so felt a lot more straightforward. However things were complicated by several hundred sheep that were wandering across the road, and I had to do an emergency stop and unclip and a border collie wrangled a herd of goats straight towards me and engulfed me.

Almost run off the road by these guys

The view from the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer, with another fast descent beckoning.

 

Feed station at the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer

It was much warmer on this descent and I was much more into my stride. The route soon kicked up again with a climb to the Col du Molland, and this was were a lot of people I think were starting to crack. Another big descent, and after 20 minutes of brake-pumping and ear-popping I was down at the valley floor, where the heat and humidty were hugely noticeable after the fresher conditions up high.

Another quick food stop at La Fuga and it was time to start the final climb of the day – 17km up to the ski resort of La Toussuire-Les Sybelles. Mike went on ahead of me as he was feeling stronger, but I was having my doubts as I was pretty close to exhaustion. I started the climb but after about 3-4 km of struggling, the gendarme at the back of the race passed, saying the broom wagon was approaching, and did I want to get on, or finish? Well I’d been riding for 11 hours, and was overheating and exhausted, so I took the option to get off my bike, sit in the shade and wait for the arrival of the broom wagon. I was only 15km from the end but I was under no illusion about how hard they would be and I was pleased to have made it as far as I did.

Made it to the top of the Col du Glandon

My Garmin GPS ran out of battery after 6.5 hours (just before the top of the Glandon, but you can see the data below for the times before that.

Despite the agony and hard work, it was a memorable day with great organisation and a fantastic spirit between the riders. I was amazed by how many British riders were there, and how many union jacks were flying on the roadside – maybe its the Cav/Wiggins effect but it was great to so many of us participating with the rest of the world.
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